9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. – 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 ESV
Paul had a healthy self-identity. He knew who he was and was well aware of all he had accomplished in his life, including the good and the bad. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat his past actions or paint himself as some kind of super saint who had his proverbial act together. At one point, he told the believers in Philippi, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). Paul knew he was a work in process, a personal project of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But he wasn’t God’s only reclamation project. He reminded the Philippian believers that “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).
That’s why he could encourage them to “work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). He wasn’t asking them to do the impossible. He was telling them to display the new nature that had been given to them by God through their faith in Christ and made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. They had been saved for a reason and it wasn’t just so they could go to heaven one day. God had a present plan for their lives and He had equipped them with all they would need to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
But back to Paul and his healthy sense of self-worth. Look at what he wrote to the believers in Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Paul knew who he was, but he had no delusions of grandeur. He didn’t view himself as somehow deserving of God’s goodness and grace. In fact, he makes it quite clear that his past track record of persecuting the church would have been more than enough reason for God to avoid him like the plague. So, when Paul says that he is what he is by the grace of God, what is he saying? Yes, he’s obviously talking about his salvation. He stands before God as righteous, forgiven of his sins, and free from all condemnation. But as great as that is, I think Paul has more in mind.
Throughout his letters, Paul consistently introduced himself in terms that expressed his awareness of his identity.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… – Romans 1:1 ESV
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus… – 1 Corinthians 1:1 ESV
In virtually every letter Paul wrote, he introduced himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. He willingly and proudly described himself as a servant or slave of Jesus. In other words, he was a servant-leader. He had been called and commissioned by Jesus Himself to take the gospel to the Gentiles, but he knew that his primary role was that of servant. And he had no problem with that role. Which is why he was able to tell the Philippian believers, “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God” (Philippians 2:17 NLT). Paul knew who he was and what he had been called to do. He was completely at peace with his identity and his purpose.
But not only had Paul been called and commissioned, he was being constantly conditioned by virtue of his relationship with the Holy Spirit. The grace of God had made him who he was: a fully forgiven child of God; but it was also transforming him into the likeness of Jesus Himself.
Paul was confident that his entire life was in the hands of God. It was by God’s grace he even existed. It was by God’s grace he had been called. And it was by God’s grace he stood before the Corinthians as a servant and apostle of Christ. His life, from start to finish, was the work of God. He fully believed what he told the Philippian believers:
God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NET
God was going to complete what He began. All according to His grace, not based on Paul’s merit or hard work. Paul’s transformation into the image of Christ was no more the byproduct of his own effort than was his deliverance from death to life. And this is why he was able to tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi that “the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God” (Philippians 2:13 NET).
We should not treat lightly Paul’s admission, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.” This wasn’t some kind of rhetorical flourish designed to make him appear more spiritual to the believers in Philippi. He truly believed it. He was blown away that he had been considered worthy to be an apostle. But he knew it had not been based on this own worthiness, but that of Christ. If fact, he describes himself as “one untimely born,” a very graphic term which, in the Greek, refers to a stillborn baby. Paul uses this disparaging term in reference to Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9. In essence, Paul was comparing himself to a lifeless, prematurely born baby. As such, he would have had no inherent value or worth, yet Jesus chose to reveal Himself to Paul. Not only that, Jesus had called him, commissioned him, and was in the process of conditioning his character so that it mirrored His own.
And Paul recognized that his transformation into the likeness of Christ was the work of God based on the grace of God, just as his salvation had been.
It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. – Galatians 2:20-21 NLT
The grace of God. For Paul, it meant everything. Without grace, Paul was one untimely born and the least-deserving of all men to be called, commissioned, or conditioned by God for His service. God’s grace left Paul slack-jawed and awe-struck. He never got over the shock of who he had once been and who he had become – in Christ. And any value he used to hold in his former life was, by his own admission, little better than dung, when compared to his current standing as a child of God.
But by the grace of God, I am what I am. That was Paul’s firm belief. He knew it to be true and he saw it lived out in his life on a daily basis. I love the way The New Living Translation puts it: “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results.” God’s grace produces results. It transforms and conditions. It radically alters and is constantly changing us so that we “are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18 BSV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.